Potter’s Workbook by Clary Illian

If I formed an actual Potter’s Book Club, Clary Illian’s A Potter’s Workbook would definitely be on the reading list.  It would be great fun to work through the assignments with other potters and then have a group discussion.

Illian defines A Potter’s Workbook as  “a utilitarian pottery workshop in a book…designed to help students who are learning to throw pots, potters who know how to throw but feel the need for greater understanding, and skilled craftspeople who enjoy thinking about the objects they love” (pg 1).   And, I found it to be all of that and more.

The chapters are organized by concept and pot shape.  Each section has an assignment and lots of black and white photographs of leather-hard pots are used to illustrate various solutions to that assignment.  Illian provides tangible advice about aesthetics and gives ample consideration to function for each assignment.   She offers beginning potters practical instruction for basic throwing such as which hand should be dominant when making bowls/cylinders and she challenges advanced potters to use proportional relationships to design successful pots.  I think her discussion of handle placement is the best I have ever encountered; and, I have often relied on her guidelines when choosing where to put handles on new pots.

When I began pottery, I was overwhelmed with learning basic throwing skills; but, at this point in my pottery journey, I am trying to make my pots more distinctively mine.  Illian says that “noticing your concerns and continually defining and refining them [will] give birth to personal style” (pg 89); and, that as you are working through your preferences, your style is evolving on its own.   She emphasizes the benefits of drawing and language for learning to see pots and identifying desirable elements in those pots.  She promises that these skills will help a potter “to succeed intentionally rather than by happy accident” (pg 81) – in which I am very hopeful.

A Potter’s Workbook celebrates the wondrous complexity of form.  Many of the commentaries have caused me to be more mindful when I am making pots and provided me with vocabulary to I analyze them with after they are thrown.  It would be a worthy read for any potter individually or in a group.


“Just as the skeleton of an animal must be organized according to certain principles in order to support and contain the body and allow for movement, so too are pots limited to a certain underlying geometry… Although wheel-thrown pots are endless in their variations, they resolve into types of shapes linked by silhouette and structure… Learning the categories of shapes made both in the past and by present-day folk potters is just as important to the potter as the study of grammar to the aspiring writer.  They teach structure. “ Pg 6

“The heart of the matter in pottery making [is] to call into being an object and to ask the object to have qualities that evoke in the viewer a sense of rightness, or vitality” pg 7

“Success stems from keen observation and clear decisions” pg 67

“There will not be a perfect lid, just different lids telling different visual stories” pg 67

“Each pot has within it a logic that, if followed, leads to success. The foot that is too narrow is a foot that is not responding to the rest of the pot.” Pg 87

“Learning about utilitarian form is only part of the battle for excellence.  You must develop a personal style.” Pg 88

“Be confident that you style is evolving on its own” pg 88

“The important thing is to have fascinations, preferences, nagging questions, enthusiasms, and finally passions.  Noticing you concerns and continually defining and refining them is what give birth personal style.” Pg 89